Emily Cheney Neville Essay - Critical Essays

Neville, Emily Cheney


Emily Cheney Neville 1919–

American novelist and journalist. Neville was one of the first young adult writers to choose settings other than the affluent suburbs or bucolic countryside and characters other than fair-haired kids with creamy complexions and perfect orthodontia. Her first novel accepted for publication, It's Like This, Cat, is a sensitive, low-keyed look at an ordinary teenage boy in New York City. Directed especially to a male readership, it was unusual for its accurate rendering of teenage dialogue and slang and was praised for its perceptive representation of the feelings of an average teenager towards his family and everyday life. Neville wrote the book as a change from the standard boy-and-dog stories of her youth, and as a reaction against her childhood hatred of cats. It was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1964. Neville grew up in a situation quite different from any of her own somewhat urbane characters. She came from a large, closeknit family in a small town, and had only her cousins as companions until the age of eleven. Her bittersweet autobiographical novel, Traveler from a Small Kingdom, describes her discovery of the outside world. Neville's understanding of the importance of being accepted in society has come through strongly in her works, due perhaps to her own experience. The Seventeenth Street Gang describes a group of urban children dealing with acceptance and rejection, and presents an analysis of some of the internal problems within a group mentality. Neville has brought a strong sense of social justice to her books, and has recently begun a career as a lawyer. Her Berries Goodman has as its theme the dawning of the existence of prejudice on a boy in a suburban environment. Neville has consistently refused to sugar-coat the incidents she describes in her works, and has been criticized for her unsubtlety, as well as her creation of stereotyped characters. She claims that "the real world … is so much more beautiful than a rigid world of good and bad. It is also more confusing. I think the teenage reader is ready for both." She admits her characters are "somewhat fragmentary," since she lets her dialogue define them. Although some of this dialogue sounds somewhat dated today, the situations she describes for her characters are representative of the universal teenage experience. Her mission as an author, Neville states, "is to show the reader, not how great a hero he could become, because I don't think most people are going to become heroes, but simply how hard it is to be a plain decent human being." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

Robert Hood

A middle-class, 14-year-old cliff dweller, Dave Mitchell, roams from the Bronx Zoo to the Fulton Fish Market to Coney Island [in "It's Like This, Cat"]. His experiences, although not melodramatic, violent or grim, are the essence of today—shy dates with a girl, friendship with an older boy, affection for a pet, learning to understand Dad. Written in an understated, humorous style, this is superb—the best junior novel I've ever read about big-city life. (p. 2)

Robert Hood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1963.

[In Berries Goodman], in a recognizable, believable situation, the difficulty in assigning blame and analyzing motive as well as in tracing the pressures adults exert on children, who are also subject to the pressures of their own codes, is very well done. Unlike the general run of juvenile novels, the issue of anti-Semitism is not continuously slugged at, telegraphed or spotlighted. It is through nuance that the social myths go crashing—about being Jewish, looking Jewish and having Jewish names. Berries' first person reporting is sharp. This boy doesn't miss a trick and all the incidental misadventures of transplanting from city sidewalks to suburban folkways are recounted with a direct comic vision which enhances the book's major point without reducing its serious intent. The dialogue is just as natural and relaxed as in It's Like This, Cat and indirectly (for instance, Sidney's mother who is in there protecting and pushing and wanting him "to be perfect") some types are well cast. We often recommend adult books for youngsters; you can do the reverse here—anybody can find it both worthwhile and a pleasure to read. (p. 318)

Virginia Kirkus' Service, March 15, 1965.

Ellen Rudin

"Berries Goodman" is a children's book which focuses unsmilingly on the Gentile and the Jewish problem. Despite a most readable style, it is a hard, painful book. Berries, whom we meet at age 9, is Gentile. The product of a heterogeneous big-city neighborhood and a laissez-faire family, he has always accepted people for themselves. After his family moves to the suburbs, however, Berries gradually wakes up to the fact of prejudice. It puzzles him and disturbs him. Eventually its ugly complexities cause him to lose his best friend, a Jewish boy named Sidney Fine….

This is a profound subject for a book of children's fiction. Mrs. Neville keeps to the point. She has not tried to explain away the weed of prejudice but only to show its bitter fruit. And that is quite enough. (p. 26)

Ellen Rudin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1965.

Ruth Hill Viguers

Told with understated directness, [Berries Goodman] has underlying emotion that makes the reader care greatly about the boys and their friendship. The characters are completely individual, Berries' family is refreshing and real, and events grow naturally from the interplay of personalities. The whole story has the conviction of one that has been a long time maturing in the author's mind. Stronger than the author's It's Like This, Cat, and highly recommended. (p. 285)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1965 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1965.

Taliaferro Boatwright

[Berries Goodman is a] completely contemporary tale, as immediate and recognizable as the PTA and advice-to-parents columns. Its central theme—anti-Semitic prejudice in "restricted" communities and how it affects children brought up in ignorance that such things exist—is both important and interesting. Its incidents … are the stuff of everyday middle-class life. Its hero, Berries, is as appealing a 9-year-old as you could find. And yet, after the award-winning It's Like This, Cat, Mrs. Neville's previous book, this is a disappointment. Probably the trouble is that the material is all too familiar, and there is not enough drama in the story or development in the characters. (p. 16)

Taliaferro Boatwright, in Book Week—The Washington Post (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1965.

Ruth Hill Viguers

Attitudes and idiom reflect what is considered typical of New York City children [in The Seventeenth-Street Gang]. Underneath their defiant independence and their defence against "flots" and adults in general are glimpses of the people they really are—not very different from children of any time and place. The glimpses are brief, however. Instead of the depth of the characterization in the author's Berries Goodman, one feels here superficial cleverness, typical of a current genre. Present-day children, recognizing types, may read enough into the story to enjoy it, but the plot is too slim to be remembered long. (p. 570)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book...

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Thomas J. Fleming

Like all award winners, Emily Cheney Neville will spend the rest of her life competing with herself. Her "It's Like This, Cat" walked (or talked) off with the Newbery Medal several years ago. Is "The Seventeenth-Street Gang" a match for that champion? The answer must be a reluctant no.

Mrs. Neville's eye for the nuances of affection and exasperation between parents and children is still keen, and she creates believable characters, who talk and act like real children and adults. Everyone's favorite in this book is sure to be Minnow, Seventeenth Street's supercharged femme fatale…. But Minnow's charm is wasted on a very routine plot—the gang's hesitation about taking a new boy named Hollis...

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Zena Sutherland

Capricious, mendacious, and notably hostile, Minnow dominates a group of boys and girls of mixed ages and backgrounds living in a heterogeneous New York neighborhood [in The Seventeenth-Street Gang]…. The resilient Minnow is an enfant terrible, but she is more nasty than vicious, and she is utterly believable. The shifting patterns of power plays within the gang are fascinating, as are the stratagems that the children use to maintain their privacy against adults. (p. 50)

Zena Sutherland, in Saturday Review (© 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission). November 12, 1966.

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Margery Fisher

Of [Natalie Savage Carlson's The Empty Schoolhouse, Bella Rodman's Lions in the Way, and Berries Goodman], each pleading for tolerance, Berries Goodman seems to me the best balanced. The well-to-do suburb of Olcott does not care for Jews and forces them, by subtle pressure, to live a separate social life…. [Racial] antagonism is the cause of action, not the motive for the book. When Berries and Sidney are separated we see family relationships laid bare—the stupid power exercised by Sandra's parents, the appalling powerlessness of children to direct their lives or understand their parents' direction of them. All this emerges as Berries tells the story five years later, a little wiser but...

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Polly Goodwin

The world Emily Cheney knew as a little girl in the 1920s will seem to today's children as foreign to their experience as a fairytale kingdom, as remote as a planet in outer space. But to Emily, the Place was very real—and secure—inhabited exclusively by Cheneys….

[Traveler from a Small Kingdom] is Emily's nostalgic recreation of that life. It moves at a leisurely pace as it tells of games and pranks with cousins, of holiday celebrations, of exploratory walks with [the governess] Mrs. Goodall, of experiments with their hens and pet goats. Gradually it takes Emily beyond her kingdom….

Children love to know what it was like "when you were a little girl." With the...

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Ethel L. Heins

To a generation of children growing up … in a world accustomed to war, violence, speed, and technology, [the almost uneventful re-creation of an extinct way of life in Traveler from a Small Kingdom] may seem limp and unreal. Perhaps an adult, savoring the reminiscences and the evocative writing, can introduce the book. (p. 335)

Ethel L. Heins, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1968 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1968.

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Zena Sutherland

[Fogarty] has the candor and realism of the author's Newbery winner, It's Like This, Cat …, with a protagonist who is like so many of today's young adults, but no formula situations. The characterizations, not only of Fog but of all the minor characters, is magnificent. (p. 72)

Zena Sutherland, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 8, 1969.

When first met [in Fogarty] loafing in front of Malone's garage in Wilbur Flats, Dan Fogarty, twenty-three, college graduate and law school drop-out, is the "town flop"—as he caustically informs a preacher who, like his...

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Ruth Hill Viguers

Emily Neville's It's Like This, Cat … gives a wonderful sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of New York City. Dave Mitchell, fourteen and rebellious—"My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat"—tells his own story of a year of growing up, especially of going through the tunnel of impatience and irritation with his father and coming at last into the light. Mrs. Neville's second book, Berries Goodman …, has even more interesting characters and situations. It is the story of a city boy, newly arrived in the suburbs, who has his first brush with antisemitism. Berries Goodman and Sidney Fine, who have found much in common, do their...

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Josh Greenfeld

Once a domesticated preserve of games and whimsey and fancy, the new children's literature now deals with all the subjects that were once labeled "For Adults Only."

Emily Cheney Neville is certainly one of the better practitioners of the new children's literature. Her "It's Like This, Cat" won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1964. In "Fogarty" she has an honest ear, a penchant for sharp simile ("He'd forgotten that city water tasted like warm Clorox"), the ability to encapsulate an endearing truth simply ("'Why,' he thought, 'is it so hard to tell someone you don't love them?'") and, moreover she knows how to underwrite a dramatic scene so that it reverberates with overtones ("He said, 'Don't...

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Diane G. Stavn

[Fogarty], ambitious in aim, is off-target in itself but better than most…. Like A. E. Johnson's A Blues I Can Whistle …, this book depicts the sentimental hold of a small town on even its more rebellious citizens, and features a sensitive young dropout hero who is getting over an unhappy romance, has some measure of artistic talent, and spars mentally with himself about his motivations to action. But A Blues I Can Whistle is more sophisticated stylistically, more intrinsically dramatic. Its protagonist, 19-year-old Cody, is recovering from an actual affair; Fog, from a hand-holding relationship. Cody's attempt to prevent his activist friend Barney's philosophically-inspired suicide makes...

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There is no startling drama in It's Like This, Cat …, but it is impressive both for its lightly humorous, easy style and the fidelity with which it portrays a fourteen-year-old boy, Dave, who tells the story. Dave has found the first girl with whom he really feels comfortable (her mother is delightfully sketched as an urban intellectual), and he learns, by seeing the relationship between his father and his friend, that his father really is a pretty good guy. The experience of seeing one's parents through a friend's eyes is a common one, usually revelatory and seldom touched on in books for young people.

Berries Goodman … looks back on the two years in which his family lived in a...

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Eleanor Cameron

Chekhov pointed out that the great writer has a sense of absolute freedom within the discipline of his craft, within his moral point of view, his sense of aesthetic distance. He has reached that point where he can be himself to the utmost degree and can say it without descending to the meretricious, the vulgar, or to a cheap voyeurism. And I think that it is this sense of restriction—of not feeling perfectly free to express all he knows to be true of teenage sexual feelings and the teenagers' deepest attitudes toward them—that so often pulls the quality of the writer's work for this age down to the level of the bland and the superficial, to what Josh Greenfeld, in a review of Emily Neville's Fogarty [see...

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Eric A. Kimmel

The central issue of Berries Goodman is that of polite suburban anti-Semitism…. (p. 152)

Ms. Neville cannot really be criticized for not presenting a very clear picture of the central issues of Jewish life, for the main action does not involve Jewish characters in any roles other than secondary ones. Still, some points should be noted. Sidney Fine falls victim to a malady common to minority characters in similar situations. Because of the structure of the plot, it is important that he be seen as a sympathetic, regular guy, so nice that any dislike of him is revealed as foolish and unjustified. What really happens in this case and in similar ones is that the character becomes flat. Although...

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Carolyn T. Kingston

The tragic moments of [It's Like This, Cat] ostensibly concern cats, but in a larger sense they are clarifications of two forms of loss.

The first tragic moment occurs after Cat has been seriously hurt in a fight. Cat often returns home wounded from his night rambles, but this time he comes close to death. Kate says that the animal can survive only one or two years in the back alleys, and Dave, loving his pet, realizes that he must decide whether to take Cat to the hospital for an operation. The boy places high value on his pet's masculinity and "catness" and cannot bear that this should be lost, but with tears in his eyes, he decides that the preservation of Cat's life must take precedence....

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Doris Orgel

Mrs. Neville makes the slum setting [of "Garden of Broken Glass"] palpably real. Her four main characters have plenty of problems: living on the edge of despair with an abusive drunk for a mother, as Brian, the one white boy, does; being fat, and, as 13-year-old Martha fears, pregnant; knowing, as Dwayne and his girlfriend Melvita do, that "without money, you is nothin!" But problems, as Mrs. Neville knows, are only interesting if the characters move and breathe and think and feel.

Martha is philosophical beyond her years, and perhaps, beyond belief. The street talk doesn't always ring true. Now and then the author, whose great strength is seeing people from inside, makes extraneous,...

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